Interview: The Aces
When I walked into the green room at 9:30 Club to meet with The Aces, I was greeted with a tangible energy that felt familiar. There were clothes strewn all over the room, an assortment of snacks, and the type of chatter that can only be had by a group of close female friends. It felt nice. They had delivered a lively, crowd winning performance only 30 minutes prior and their spirits were still high as we sat down to talk.
The Aces are an all-female band from Orem, Utah, a town just outside of Provo. The group consists of Alisa (Drums) and Cristal Ramirez (vocals/guitar) who are sisters, Katie Henderson (lead guitar/vocals), and McKenna Petty (bass). Though they are young, they’ve been honing their craft over a decade now, asking Santa for bass guitars and drum sets instead of toys as children. The fierce bond among the four of them permeates throughout the conversation; where one of them would leave off the other would pick up, giving the conversation an enjoyable, energetic pace.
All-female bands are often looked at for their gender first and their music second but The Aces are pioneering a movement to shatter the idea that "girl band" is a genre. "People act like we’re all going to sound the same as opposed to giving us a clean slate as you would a ‘normal’ band or artist. I hate that there is a negative connotation with ‘girl band’ but I do get where people use it as a descriptor because it is uncommon in this time. So, I don’t feel like I get annoyed but I do get irritated when people attach it to a lot of assumptions, especially negative ones” says Alisa.
“We are also really proud of the fact that we are all women, you know?” Cristal added. “We don’t shy away from that. It’s a delicate balance of being like, take us as a band –we are just a band! I don’t see why people have to see gender all the time and make it a thing. But at the same time, it is unique and it is a strength of ours that we are all women. We wanna inspire other girls and we get that all the time –fans coming up to us and being like ‘oh my gosh you guys are so inspiring I wanna be in the music industry’ or ‘I wanna start a band.'" McKenna chimes in, “The biggest thing is that we just wanna see more girls playing music. It’s so amazing even if somebody’s like 'oh it’s a girl band!' Obviously yeah, it’s kind of irritating because that’s not a genre but it’s really cool that it inspires [girls] to just get out and play music. For every person who is like “ohhh I usually don’t like girl drummers but you’re awesome!” Alisa cuts her off, “It’s usually not that nice, it’s not ‘I don’t like girl drummers’ it’s ‘all girls suck but you don’t!’ That’s what I get all the time. Like, that’s not a compliment.” “For every comment like that, there’s ten good ones," says Cristal. “Whether it’s wanting to do something in music or in anything else, it’s not very normal for women to do [what we do] and we’re glad we can inspire them and kind of be an example" adds McKenna. "We really take advantage of the fact that we are all women and we’re proud of it" adds Cristal.
Another common idea associated with "girl bands," especially one with as many catchy songs as The Aces, is that they are inauthentic. “We played a Grammy event last year and when we got done playing someone in the bathroom was talking to our manager and was like ‘who put them together? Who auditioned them?’ And he was like no one! People just assume that we’re put together [by a label] because it’s so rare, but it’s time for that preconceived idea to just be gone because we’re just a band.” Katie tells me. “We’ve been playing since we were literally 8 and 10 years old too, so when people say that [they’re a label manufactured group] it’s just funny because it was such a natural, normal thing that we wanted to do” adds McKenna.
"Stuck" is the first of several earworms The Aces have released and the one that has since defined their sound. Prior to writing it, the band had been focused on writing more alt-rocky songs, due to their own constraints and a fear of succumbing to the pop sound that is often expected from a "girl band." "We were garage band-y for a long time because we were just working off of the four instruments we played. Do you know what I mean? We didn’t know what producing was and we didn’t know what collaborating was because we were just kids so we were just like alright, write a guitar line, write a bassline, I’ll play a beat," says Alisa. "We had been writing, writing, writing, trying to figure out like, who are we as a band now that we want to take it to the next level? We want to be a professional band, we want to be touring. What do we want? Who are we? I think we were really focusing on alt-rock stuff because there was this hesitancy as a girl band to be too poppy, which is so silly," adds Cristal.
"There were times where we’d be writing melodies and Cristal and I would just look at each other and be like ‘is that too pop?’ And then we just stopped doing that and were like let’s just write the music that naturally comes out of us which is Michael Jackson-type stuff," says Alisa. Cristal continues on, "We wrote “Stuck” and that was the first moment we looked at each other and were kind of like let’s stop holding back from our natural intuition to write pop melodies, let’s just embrace it because it is who we are." "Once we started accepting that and once you guys [Cristal and Alisa] started writing that way it just felt so normal and that’s when things really started for us," says McKenna. "Yeah, it just felt right," adds Katie. "It was just a total breakthrough for us as a band," says Cristal.
We move on to the topic of inspirations and who they looked up to that made them feel like they could be the powerhouse band that they’ve become. There haven’t been a ton of all female bands making they type of music they play, so I ask who they looked to that made them feel they could do it too. Alisa chimes in first, “It’s funny we actually just talked about this the other day. Funnily enough, our inspirations to start the band, they were all males. But we just loved them and were like we’re gonna be the female version.” Cristal tells me part of their drive and inspiration came from the fact that they are all women and wanted to be the female version of some of their favorite bands.
“I think that’s why we were so inspired. I remember specifically saying to Alisa and to Kenna and Katie when were younger ‘let’s be the girl version, why are there no girl versions?’ We were constantly looking up to bands like –we loved The Jonas Brothers—” Alisa interjects, “Keep in mind we started this band when I was like 8 and she was like 10.” They all share a laugh as Cristal continues, “We were watching Disney Channel or whatever and it was just boy bands and we were just like let’s be the girl version! And I think that’s what motivated us so much, there was no one doing it! You know?” The band did have female inspiration as well though, “Paramore is a huge inspiration for us and I think Hayley Williams is kind of like an icon, we kind of just wanted to be her. But I don’t think we took it as girl vs. boy it was just like, they’re amazing I wanna be that. You know what I mean?” McKenna also cites Lorde as a major inspiration, “We looked up a lot to Lorde. When she won all of her Grammys that night, that was a huge reason we decided to really do it. We were so inspired that she was so young and it wasn’t even necessarily matter that she was a girl, we just liked her a lot.”
Motivation to be the female versions of their favorite male bands aside, they had to make a firm commitment to the band and take a leap. "We've been in this band since we were little kids...I think when we first started it we always thought ‘yeah, this is our career this is gonna be it’ but then I think that growing up in a small town, as you get older you can kind of get small town-itis and think like *in mocking tone* ‘okay well maybe I should like be a doctor and go to college’ you know?" "And a lot of people don’t understand it so you have people all the time, like parents or teachers –I mean we were lucky, most people were encouraging -but kind of just like," she continues in a mocking tone, "oh, this is cute but like what are you gonna do? What are you really gonna do.”
"Cristal always saw the dream and we have to thank her for staying strong with the vision because now we’re all doing what we’re meant to be doing. Going to college wasn’t for me but it is for some people –go to school! Sorry for the backstory, but we all kind of had our doubts for a minute but seeing Lorde [win her Grammys] we were like nah, this chick’s from New Zealand and she’s our age! We should do it too! She was so inspiring and we loved her." "I think we all knew in the end though that we would do it. We were in it. There was something so special about being –my dad literally sat me down and was like ‘what are you doing? You have something so special, you need to do it.’ We all have such supportive parents that were like ‘go for your dreams, do it’" says Katie. "It was such a cool opportunity and such a rare and serendipitous thing we had all grown up together and that we were just such good friends too, that was a huge reason we decided to just go for it." McKenna adds.
At this point in their career, The Aces have already managed to secure themselves opening slots on North American tours for bands like Joywave, Coin, and soon X Ambassadors and have played a number of dates abroad. I ask them what it feels like to be able to tour together after hustling for such a long time. Cristal answers first, "Oh, I have a very distinct memory of when I was like 14 and I had a friend who was in a rockabilly band and they would tour a lot. I remember asking ‘what do you do, how do you tour, how do you set up the dates?’ and he was like 'oh, I go on to this website 'indie something.' And when you’re independently touring you can look up the venues, look up all this stuff, and link your tours.' I was sitting on the computer, 14 years old like ‘how do I tour?’ not knowing what I was doing. Literally being like ‘oh, I don’t have the money what do I do’ not understanding what it was and just wanting so desperately [to tour]. And any time I would travel, I was wishing I was there for music. You know what I mean? Like, I’d go on a family vacation and I was like oh, I wish I was here with my band and we had a show! So, to be here now on a full north American tour and we’re actually doing it (you can hear the passion and excitement in her voice pick up as she’s saying this) we’re showing up to these cities, fans are showing up, and we’re playing shows every single night to packed rooms.. Katie interjects, "And they know the words!" Cristal continues, "It’s just crazy. I think we feel it’s very pinch me a lot of the time. It’s just the beginning of our touring career but it’s still very much ‘what the hell, we get to do this?’ I mean we have worked very hard for it but it’s crazy, we just feel really grateful."
"My older brothers were in a band together and they toured a lot" says Katie. "We had this old blue van at my house and I remember I would watch them every show take out the backseat of the van, load the gear, and they would go on these little tours around the state and I remember thinking ‘I can’t wait until I get to take out the backseat and load in my gear and go on tour and like have a snack with the gals! It was just the dream as a kid to take the road. To be doing it now, especially with Coin has been a blast."
"Sorry, we can wrap up this question," Alisa laughs, "I think a really surreal moment was when we got to go to Europe for the first time last year and I’ve always wanted to go to Europe—we all have—and to think that it was because of music that we got to go there and it was paid for and there were fans." She pauses before continuing, as if in disbelief, "I don’t know, you know my favorite thing an old person has said to me –I love old people by the way –is ‘do something you love never work a day in your life.’ Genuinely it never feels like work, sometimes I’ll sit back on stage or even in the studio and just look at these girls and be like, this is our JOB? What the fuck..this is tight.”
Throughout the conversation, it becomes increasingly clear that The Aces are genuine, kind, and humble individuals. I ask them to shine a light on their home state of Utah, to better understand where they came from and how it has shaped who they are as humans and as a band. McKenna jumps in to talk first, "Utah is incredible. We all love it so much, we love going home. It’s such a little oasis in the mountains. There are so many beautiful places to hike and ski but also if you go south there’s a lot of really cool national parks. It’s just amazing, it’s really a cool environment and it has a really cool music scene actually. It was really, really important for us to be there when we were as little kids because it’s very religious, like no one drinks. So all the venues, especially in Provo where we grew up, all the venues were all ages. We could play in the venues that the 30 year old guys were playing in when we were like 13 and 14. We just gigged, we gigged so much. We were able to play live so much." Cristal adds to McKenna's comment about all ages venues, "I don’t know if we would be a band if we didn’t grow up in Utah exactly because of that reason. We had a platform, we had something to aspire to –it was this venue called Velour. It’s in our hometown, and surprisingly enough it’s actually a huge music city, Provo. Imagine Dragons broke there first, The Used is from Orem –some really cool bands who have had massive success are from Utah. If we didn’t have that stage and we didn’t have that community of college kids who were just like, sober college kids who just loved music, I don’t know if we’d be a band. It was a goal, it was a constant goal to be playing these shows on the weekends, to be bringing kids to the venue, selling it out. We were literally like hustling tickets in our junior high and high school, being like ‘come to our show come to our show come to our show!’ "I remember being like 13 years old and handing out fliers to everyone in my class being like ‘come to my show!’ and they’d be like ‘ok I’ll see if my MOM can drive me to it," says Alisa. "We were just hustling it! I think Utah kept us really grounded. All of us grew up in very stable homes and we could concentrate on music and I think because it’s such a religious town and genuinely, in high school no one is drinking. People are like eating brownies and watching movies together."
To wrap up our conversation, I ask the band how they felt about the comment made by Recording Academy president/CEO, Neil Portnow that women need to "step up" if they want to be better represented at the Grammys. Cristal chimes in first, "I think that's so silly. I do understand that of course, we as women, there has to be a level with the talent as well. There has to. And we have to be there but we ARE there. There’s so many acts, like SZA –are you joking me? Why didn’t she win a Grammy? That’s so silly. Why didn’t Lorde get to perform solo? It’s a problem, you know? That’s what I think and I think you guys agree with me too," she looks to Katie, McKenna, and Alisa who collectively nod. She continues, "It is an issue. Women are stepping up! Yes, of course we need to be on the same level and all genders need to have the same amount of talent as each other and really hone their craft, but there’s also the side that’s like LOOK FOR WOMEN, don’t just dismiss them! Because that happens all the time."
"We’re the only ones who can really change the industry. It’s really important for other people and outsiders to see us and respect that and support us, but we’re the ones who are gonna be actually making it [the music industry] different," says McKenna. "You have to ask for the shit you want, you gotta ask for it. You can’t be like ‘oh, I’m nervous I wish I could.’ It’s like, ask for it! If you ask, you’ll get it, but if you don’t ask for it no one is going to give it you. It all starts with YOU, you know? What can you do, how can you be the best at what you do?" Cristal says. McKenna interjects, "If you’re a woman and you feel like you want to be treated the same as any other male musician or male person in the industry, work for it and be as good and work on yourself first, that’s the biggest thing." "I kinda like it when I can I go on stage and someone’s underestimating me and I totally prove them wrong. It’s fun, underestimate me all you want I’m going to prove you wrong" Katie says.
The Aces' debut album "When My Heart Felt Volcanic" will be released Friday via Redbull Records but you can stream it now via NPR First Listen. The band will embark on a US tour with X Ambassadors which begins April 12th, for a list of tour dates click here.
All photos by Cina Nguyen for Capitol Sound DC.
Keep up with The Aces at the links below.